As a political leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett put the West Bank annexation on Israel’s political map as an acceptable discourse and a viable option in the absence of any peace process with the Palestinians.
As justice minister, Ayelet Shaked helped make it legally feasible, taking as many steps as possible toward de facto annexation, promising to do more in the 35th government to “normalize life” for Judea and Samaria residents.
Under her guidance, the state changed its legal framework with regard to property rights in the West Bank, moving to one that was more sympathetic to the settlers than the Palestinians.
Bennett and Shaked were shoe-leather politicians. They spoke with their feet, visiting Judea and Samaria, and meeting with its residents, including in their homes, particularly in times of crisis.
But when the settlers voted, it was the Likud, not Bennett and Shaked’s New Right Party – which was formed only in December, that emerged as the most popular choice.
A Jerusalem Post tally of votes from the Central Election Committee’s web page showed that slightly more than one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 36 seats, some 42,670 votes, came from the 125 settlements that the committee lists on its website. It reflected 23% of the 185,003 settler votes cast in Judea and Samaria on April 9.
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism snagged 19% of the settler vote totaling 35,128 ballots, thereby giving the party one of its seven seats. It was never presumed that Bennett and Shaked would attract those voters, who lived mainly in the cities of Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit.
The Union of Right-Wing Parties was the third most popular choice among settlers, giving that party almost one of its five seats through 33,648 ballots, totaling 18% of the vote in Judea and Samaria.
New Right lagged behind in fourth place with 11% of the votes, totaling 19,728 ballots. It’s the first time that Bennett, the former Yesha Council director-general, has been that unpopular with the settlers.
Bayit Yehudi, which Bennett created in 2012, secured 28% of the settler vote in the 2013 election, far more than the 21% the Likud received. In 2015 it had 25% of the settler vote, edging out the Likud, which had 24%.
In the months leading up to the election, it appeared as if Bennett and Shaked were not just the darling of the right wing, but among the more favored politicians among the settlers as well.
They and their party stood so solidly with the settlers that at times it almost seemed as if Bayit Yehudi operated as an opposition force within the government. Together with the settlers, New Right pressed Netanyahu to take a stronger stand on behalf of Judea and Samaria, particularly when it came to issues of construction, demolition and sovereignty.
In December, Bennett and Shaked were among a group of settler leaders and right-wing politicians, including from the Likud, who rallied in front of the Prime Minister’s Office demanding annexation. They wanted him to extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements, all of which are outside of sovereign Israel and are located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli military and civilian rule.
The anger the rally participants felt at Netanyahu was also fed by a growing frustration with the unraveling security situation in the West Bank.
Almost all fatal Palestinian terror attacks in 2018, which claimed 11 lives, occurred in the West Bank. The 12th attack took place in Jerusalem, but its victim was from a community in Judea and Samaria. Three of the fatalities, two soldiers and a baby, were killed in two separate attacks in just one week in December.
When Netanyahu announced elections at the end of December, it almost seemed as if he had already lost the right-wing vote, especially the settler vote.
Just over three months later, when all the votes had been counted, it was Netanyahu who captured the heart of the right wing, including that of the settlers.
On a percentage basis, one could argue that the New Right Party still fared better in the settlements than it did nationwide, where it received 3.22% of the national vote, which amounted to 138,437 ballots. It fell short of the threshold needed to pass into the Knesset by fewer than 2,000 votes and it is still pushing for recounts that could change that scenario.
Bennett and Shaked had always banked on a broader national appeal, particularly to the secular voters to the right of the Likud, who felt that the only address for their diplomatic agenda was political parties heavily represented by National-Religious politicians, with whom they felt no kinship.
Bennett, a former corporate executive who lives in Ra’anana, made his mark in the 2013 election for the 19th Knesset when Bayit Yehudi garnered 12 seats.
With his iconic way of calling everyone “my brother,” Bennett vastly expanded the political power of a new kind of right-wing voter, at a time when Netanyahu was at his weakest point, holding only 18 seats, one less than Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and three more than Avigdor Liberman’s 15-seat party Yisrael Beytenu.
But it was presumed that Bennett, and later Shaked, held a special place within the settlement movement. His party entered the Knesset as Netanyahu was struggling to hold his own against US president Barack Obama, having imposed a 10-month moratorium on settlement building.
It was during the 19th Knesset when Obama formally engaged the Israelis and Palestinians in a peace process, that Bennett, then economy minister, began talking about an annexation plan for Area C. It was something that until then had seemed like a pipe dream that only a small group of the most faithful right-wingers clung to against all odds.
Bennett and Shaked’s party appeared to have ensconced themselves as some of the strongest legislative protectors of the settlements.
In a period where Netanyahu’s hands were tied diplomatically, they moved to advance a pro-settlement agenda legislatively. It was a process that picked up steam when US President Donald Trump took office in 2017, and they felt that Netanyahu had more freedom to respond to their demands.
So why then did the settlers fail to help return them to office? Some of the votes could be explained by the anger the settlers felt at Bennett and Shaked splitting from Bayit Yehudi so they could distance themselves from the party’s National-Religious base.
But for some it was also likely linked with Netanyahu’s growing power and his relationship with Trump.
Trump has taken many steps in the last two years to show he has Israel’s back, which has bolstered the settlers’ belief that he is on their side.
Trump has relocated the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. He has closed the Consulate-General, which served as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians. Those two steps, along with Trump’s deteriorating relationship with the Palestinians and his surprising recognition of Israel’s sovereignty of the Golan Heights, has helped feed the belief that the US president might support West Bank annexation as well.
Gone are the days of Obama, when a Bennett-Shaked protective legislative arm appeared so necessary.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu flexed his diplomatic muscle and underscored his relationship with world leaders. This included the lucky timing of the return to Israel after 37 years of the missing soldier Zachary Baumel, a move that showed his tight relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During the last days before the election, Netanyahu spoke of his support for annexing the settlements, telling voters that his strength depended on the size of the Likud.
It was an intoxicating promise that was hard to resist. Better to take a risk on a prime minister who will annex the settlements than endanger him by supporting a party whose role might be made mute by the actual application of sovereignty.
It is now up to Netanyahu to show if the gamble of voters who support annexation will pay off.
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